Sustainable Development of
Case Study from Phuket
South East Asian Seminar on the Management of Coastal Cities
August 1994, Pattaya, Thailand
SeaCanoe Thailand is proving that it is possible to develop and
sustainable business by giving priority to the conservation of the
environment. The success of the company, specialising in recreational
adventure tourism is largely due to the involvement of local, share
staff and managers who maintain a commitment to training, cross
and natural history education, high standards of quality and above
all else, a
commitment to environmental awareness. The company based in Phuket,
Thailand is an "Environment First" demonstration model,
campaigning for the future of environmentally responsible tourism
Introduction and Background
In 1983, John Gray, a former professor at the University of Hawai'i,
from his academic life to start a sea kayaking adventure travel
Gray, a life-long water sports enthusiast, was SCUBA certified at
and worked for a time as an instructor for the American Canoe Association.
A natural approach for Gray, whose love of the outdoors and sea
in particular, was to form a company specialising in marine adventure
travel. He had no interest in creating another company that simply
pleasure trips in Hawaii. The concept behind the company was based
'systems theory' (1) a form of thinking where all the elements of
impact with one another. To Gray, there was a direct link between
care, environmentalism, product quality, progressive management,
welfare, education and training. Without any one of these interrelated
elements, it would not be possible to create a truly enlightened
Gray's business was small, but successful, and by 1988, he was running
kayaking expeditions throughout the Pacific Basin. In early 1989,
conducted a survey to Thailand to investigate the sea caves in Phang
Bay. He had heard of the intricacies of the limestone formations
in the bay
and believed that there were inland tidal lagoons known as 'hongs'
room), accessible via sea caves, only at precise tide levels. Local
knew of a few caves that lead to easily accessible hongs, but Gray's
expedition teams successfully discovered a number of "secret"
were previously unknown even by the local fishermen.
Following his return to Hawaii, Gray decided to return to Thailand
to set up
a company that would take people to see these marvels. At first
thought that he was mad - his idea to charge guests $US100 a day
to see a
few caves and hongs in Phang Nga Bay sounded crazy. Gray's guides,
however, supported his vision and became his partners and SeaCanoe
formed. At that time, tourists were booking trips to James Bond
Phi Phi Island for as little as $US10 for a day trip since there
were no other
options other than these low budget, high volume and low quality
Gray planned to use systems theory to provide a top quality trip
not only take people to beautiful places, but more importantly would
give them a true experience that would inspire them to question
role and relationship within the environment. The company was to
demonstration project that would prove its own statement of purpose.
'Statement of purpose' as opposed to the more formal 'Mission Statement''
was used to reflect Gray's aspirations to prove that it was possible
to run an
"environment first" business based on previously untested
"SeaCanoe develops sustainable business opportunities with
local people that
promote environmental conservation by providing high quality recreational
adventures specialising in natural history and cross-cultural education."
The key to the whole statement was that the ultimate success of
was its ability to promote environmental conservation, otherwise
wouldn't be any product to market.
SeaCanoe offered a totally unique trip for tourists; guests were
pristine sites that no photograph could capture and served meals
rivaled Phuket's top hotels and restaurants. The expeditions featured
lingual, well paid guides trained to international standards; inflatable
canoes, custom built to demanding specifications; environmental
history knowledge; enlightened customer care - guides treated guests
friends and didn't act like their servants; low volume groups allowed
to enjoy an intimate meaningful trip, rather than a herded tour
up to 200 people.
Five years later, SeaCanoe is the largest revenue producer for the
tour wholesaler in Phuket. Day trips are full every day and the
expanded to Ko Samui and Krabi. The company runs expeditions in
Thailand, and has conducted exploratory trips in Vietnam. In 1995,
company plans to start operations in the Philippines. Not once have
original ideals been changed, and based on these, the company goes
strength to strength.
Issues relating to the success of SeaCanoe
1) Local Ownership and Management
SeaCanoe's policy is one of local management and control. The involvement
of local people was of major importance. Local employees and managers
knowledge of the area, while locals who had often been fishermen
on the islands could be easily trained as kayak guides. Putting
of the company into local hands may well reduce the desire to sell
lands for short term profits, especially if the locals appreciated
the true value
of land as an environmental asset.
83% of SeaCanoe is owned by Thais, 99% of the shares are owned by
who work in the company. There are no outside investors. Gray believed
that the shares in the company should go to those that took responsibility
the success of the company. This worked in the initial stages as
split between the original five partners, two westerners and three
departure of two of the Thai partners lead to a restructure in 1993
shares to guide staff who had been with the company since the early
Management is a harder issue. Operation Management is handled very
successfully by Thai managers. Marketing, especially international
is an area where Thais are inexperienced. At SeaCanoe, international
marketing functions are handled by Westerners. For the future,
new SeaCanoe centres set up in Southeast Asia will have their international
marketing handled by the parent company.
The ultimate aim is to have each centre with only one Westerner
management position. The reason for this is simple; most of the
from the West and a manager from a similar culture is both sensible
necessary. Many guests and travel agents from foreign countries
form of reassurance that the company that they are spending a lot
with will not disappear off the face of the earth with their deposits.
when problems arise, a Western face is often more reassuring. Xenophobia
is one problem that we have not managed to eradicate.
2) Human Resource Management
Part of SeaCanoe's policy is the continuing training and education
staff. All staff are encouraged to continue with external education
allowed time off with full pay to study within working hours. The
has used the services of the American Canoe Association (ACA) to
its guide staff to internationally accepted standards. There is
of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) for
kayaking but Gray himself is an ACA Instructor and the company has
own training programme. Currently, negotiations are taking place
to set up
a Thai/Southeast Asia kayaking association with help from the Tourist
Authority of Thailand (TAT), the Royal Thai Navy and the Army. Such
move will help improve standards across the fledgling sea kayaking
in the Kingdom. Guide staff who have reached varying qualifications
receive a remuneration package similar to their counterparts in
the USA. To
SeaCanoe, a qualified guide receives qualified guide's pay no matter
he works. The Navy and the TAT have helped provide training for
CPR and marine rescue for guide staff.
Environmental training is an important part of the development of
As much local knowledge is taught to guide staff as possible; natural
history, geology, flora, fauna and environmental issues are updated
regularly. We believe that our guide staff should be knowledgeable
aspects of the area - that does not mean knowing which tailor or
shop pays the most commission. Guides are encouraged to learn another
second language other than English.
3) Overall Quality
SeaCanoe believes that its product is not perfect unless the quality
is of the
highest standard. By quality, we do not only mean the management
of 'quality equals consistency', but also means the best that we
offer. This is reflected in our guide staff who make a point of
as their own family. Our guide staff are multi lingual. Our meal
receives constant compliments. We refuse to serve guests polystyrene
of fried rice as many tour companies offer. We serve a full Thai
buffet that is cooked fresh on board our escort boats by two cooks.
and equipment are the best we can afford. Guests do not just see
scenery, they take part in a family experience which to many, is
that they will get to seeing the real Thailand.
4) Environmental Concern and Related Issues
By far the biggest single ideal is that of environmental conservation,
which, the company would not exist. By prioritising the environment,
SeaCanoe has developed into a pressure group as well as a tour operator.
The latest buzz word in the travel industry is ecological or eco-tourism.
use of eco-tourism as a word is similar to the word green that is
commonly in Europe to denote anything that is 'environmentally friendly'.
Unfortunately, marketers have latched onto the green concept and
goods that are sold in a green package are sometimes perceived as
environmentally friendly. A can of shaving foam that contains no
fluorocarbons as a propellant and marketed as environmentally friendly
obviously more friendly than one that contains products that may
the ozone layer. But the product that does the least harm is a block
that is lathered with a brush. Both cans present a disposal problem.
of lip service to the care of the environment is not only found
products, but also in tourism.
The holiday resort built on disused, ruined land is not eco-tourism.
It may be
a thoughtful design, but a resort complex is identical to a condominium
housing development. Design of a building such as a hotel is just
that - a
hotel. On the whole, the project does not promote the 'local' elements
discussed above. A hotel design that cares for waste disposal and
of electricity and water is acting responsibly, as should all building
This is good design and planning, but it is not ecotourism.
A company that runs tourist programmes that are environmentally
must fully understand the nature of environmental protection. This
is not a
question of going to beautiful places and showing them to anyone
pay. To call oneself an eco-tourism company, a word which we do
not like to
use in SeaCanoe, the whole of the operation must understand the
issues from the
top to the bottom. SeaCanoe guides, many of whom come from local
communities were initially uneducated in this field. This is not
on the guides themselves, but a lack of environmental awareness
society and virtually no information on this topic in the Thai education
curriculum. Guides were happy to throw rubbish and empty bottles
sea until it was explained to them why this habit was unacceptable.
was the rubbish polluting the environment, but it was leaving ugly
traces that paying guests did not want to see. If guests wished
thousands of plastic bottles floating in the sea, oil slicks and
dead coral then
they could visit Phi Phi Island (2). Once hailed as one of the most
islands in the world, this National Park now houses bungalows, hotels,
souvenir shops, money changers, bars and restaurants for the pleasure
visiting tourists. Sensible tour operators from Phuket are now beginning
remove the Phi Phi Island day trip from their programmes because
continual complaints from customers.
In commercialising the 'hongs', SeaCanoe has in the past been criticised
taking guests into pristine sites. We defend this claim and state
that if we
had not done so ourselves, someone less responsible would eventually
same. In visiting these sites, guests must adhere to a strict set
of rules in the
caves and 'hongs'; no touching, no talking, no eating, no drinking,
smoking and certainly no collection of souvenirs.
SeaCanoe, as Thailand's most active eco-tourism environmental
campaigner, has recently been asked by local people to help commercialise
private land consisting of monsoon rain forest adjacent to a National
The land contains tigers and bears yet is very close to a major
Poachers of both wood and wildlife are causing a problem to the
feels that the running of jungle trekking on his land, with a Western
clientele, will deter poachers.
When SeaCanoe first started, very few people visited Phang Nga Bay
than James Bond Island tours. Today, more and more people visit
the bay in
varying forms of transport. It is rumoured that one operator will,
in the next
high season, be running a large pleasure boat in the bay that will
fleet of jet skis. One operator that takes groups of Korean tourists
easily accessible cave and 'hong' on Ko Penak, an island in the
bay that has
been visited for years, allows it's guests to carve their names
in the rock in
the cave. Another operator has copied the entire SeaCanoe programme
This operator offers no training, guides have no knowledge of first
alone kayaking skills, the company has no enforced policy on the
environment, taking up to 30 guests at one time into caves. Their
have shown guests where to pick live coral and collect stalactites
their guests have waterfights in the 'hongs'. These two operators
may well be
taking guests to places of natural beauty, but their activities
are far from
Eco-Tourism as a revenue generator, white knight or policeman?
SeaCanoe is a small company. It would take eight companies of the
size to generate as much income as a small first class hotel in
Clearly, the establishment of more high quality 'eco-tourism' companies
would be a minute percentage of the income that Thailand receives
tourism. However, there are two main issues where those sensible
can play a very important role:
Firstly, the establishment of small scale operations in more remote
but attractive areas where the introduction of low key tourism can
considerable income for local people. An example of this where SeaCanoe
working, is the setting up of projects for fishing villages where
population has been depleted. A movement away from fishing, with
example kayaking trips as a revenue for the village will allow more
prosperity, and, the opportunity for an increase in the fish population.
projects need not have any impact on the environment whatsoever,
contrary, they may help restore the natural habitat of wildlife.
Secondly is the role played in the much larger issue of the mass
of a country's most important resource; its own environment. True
tourism companies are helping to provide awareness to the public,
and government, about the natural environment that is being squandered.
Eco-tourism companies constantly bring forward environmental issues.
example, SCUBA diving at the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea
deterred the blasting of coral reefs by fishermen.
As an example of tourism gone mad, the disasters of Pattaya are
fully understood. Once a quaint Thai seaside town, Holiday Which
Magazine, in 1992, voted it as one of the world's ten worst beach
If Thailand does not learn from the mistakes made in Spain when
boomed there in the 1960s and 70s, then high quality, high revenue
will be a thing of the past in twenty years. Thai resorts will be
full of cheap
package holiday makers who do not appreciate quality and have no
to spend. Short term gains will be long term disasters. Diethelm
largest operator in Thailand now claim that 'Western tourists are
place more importance on the naturalness of place they visit...sites
with healthy flora and fauna are turning out to be more popular
and sun spots fully equipped with modern facilities' (6).
Environmental awareness in the West is booming and assuming that
Western visitors to the Kingdom are looking for a more 'natural'
what can be done to preserve the beauty of the country? This is
not only for
tourists, but also for the people of Thailand who have every right
their own beautiful country. Furthermore, it is for the preservation
environment of the planet.
1) There needs to be a compete blanket ban on any further commercial
development whatsoever within any National Park.
2) The National Parks Division needs a massive budget to protect
resources. Within this budget, properly trained well paid rangers
patrol all parks at all times. Well paid staff will discourage resorting
forms of income. National Parks need well informed visitor centres
3) Wildlife sanctuaries need to be set up within National Parks.
4) Zones for tourism with set volume limits within National Parks
required. This will limit the number of tourists within sensitive
5) A system of licensing for operators that is adhered to is required.
operators should have fully qualified and trained staff. The TAT
to carry this out which is welcomed, unfortunately, their powers
6) A massive public education campaign is required to make Thai
more aware of their environment. Those Thais that do understand
are taking the matter very seriously. Unfortunately, they are a
We must accept that these measures will make tourism more expensive
the average tourist. This is not such a bad thing. Tourists do not
object to paying for quality once they realise what they are getting.
being exclusive when we exclude those tourists with a smaller budget?
Perhaps so, but what is more important - a country that can be proud
natural beauty that has been saved from total destruction, or a
(1) Capra, Fritjof. 1982. The Turning Point. New York: Simon and
(2) Gray, D;Piprell,C;Graham,M. 1991. National Parks of Thailand.
Communication Resources (Thailand) Ltd.
(3) PATA Travel News. March 1994
(4) The Nation. May 26th 1994
(5) Gray,P; Ridout,L. 1992. The Rough Guide To Thailand. London:
(6) Bangkok Post. October 31st 1993